According to “Earth Matters,” the newsletter published by Pierce County Public Works and Utilities’ Environmental Services, those big, square recycling bins residents who subscribe to garbage services have been using for almost a year are making a difference at area landfills.

Steve Womback of the county’s solid waste division said in an interview that in this first year alone, 37,000 tons of recyclable materials have been kept out of landfills and are now returning into the market as new products.

Prior to changing to the one-cart program, recycling had faced a downward trend countywide; the three-bin-plus-bag system was just too bunglesome for busy households, officials said. According to county statistics, after one full year of the new program, residents are recycling 70 percent more materials overall, paper recycling is up 82 percent, and container recycling (which includes aluminum, plastics, steel and glass) has increased 27 percent.

The new system, like the garbage pickup service itself, is voluntary in Pierce County. Residents who opt for garbage pickup automatically sign up for recycling, although they are not required to recycle. The motivation to participate in recycling comes into play through a small rate deduction ($1 per month) and a rebate system (based on values of recyclables) built into the program, regulated by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

According to Womback, county costs to provide the service amounts to $4.75 per participating household per month, including rent on the carts, route pickup and preliminary resorting of recyclables. Garbage haulers are required to return 70 percent of recycle earnings back to the customers, based on a retroactive annual audit conducted by the UTC every fall. This is why, on statements from the local provider, American Disposal Co., participants see a line that reads “value of recyclables” beside a figure that is deducted from the amount owed. The annual audit is coming up in November, so the value will be slightly different on upcoming statements; the amount is determined by the value of recyclables to the secondary market to which the provider sells.

Glass is consistently sold at a loss, and easily contaminates other recycled resources, which keeps it out of the curbside recycle program, the county says. Drop-off recycling centers, not subsidized by the curbside program, accept glass (and also sell it at a loss), but make up the difference in the value of recyclable newspapers and magazines. By sorting according to color for glass, and kind for paper, users of drop-off recycling centers help keep these facilities self-supporting and open.

Womback credits his staff for their care in listening to public concerns and desires to learn more about how to both recycle and become “greener” at home. Cheryl Mizener, an office assistant in the solid waste division, has had difficulty keeping up with the demand for worm composting classes, a relatively new offering by the department, and held primarily at customer request. She says the last time they were offered, she received about 95 calls to register (classes seat 30 people); so far, as a result the recent newsletter, she has fielded more than 400 calls for the classes. Of those, she said, about 50 percent consistently sign up. The three-hour class is free without materials, and costs $30 for those who’d like a bin and red worm “starters” included. The county would like to know if participants are actually using their new skills, bins and worms, and plans to begin surveying former students from the first year.

Classes are booked through February 2007, and Mizener “keeps adding more classes as the calls keep coming in.” She notes their worm supplier, The Worms’ Wrangler, has told her he cannot harvest the critters fast enough for the demand. According to “Barry the Wrangler,” “there is a worm shortage nationwide,” and this is a good thing, Mizener says.

Womback and his staff are so pleased at customer response, they are looking to begin a similar class on generalized composting of leaves and gardening refuse. Homeowners have become so accustomed to recycling these kinds of debris that county facilities for yard waste recycling, designed to accommodate 29 tons, routinely accept 56 tons. Most of this is processed into “PREP” (Pierce County recycled products) and wholesaled to landscapers and other commercial customers. “It’s pure organic,” Womback says, “and most likely what people see around newly planted trees in parks, developments, and around new buildings.”

He says that although the 2007 permanent burn ban does not apply to the Key Peninsula, his division is interested in assisting people to find ways other than burning to dispose of yard waste, land-clearing debris and remodeling/construction refuse. Taking usable but unwanted or outgrown items to a landfill is also not an option the solid waste division encourages. The agency wants people to think of other disposal resources, like second-hand stores, donation-based groups, and a resource the county has created, a Website where individuals can sell or offer goods for reuse:www.2good2toss.com.

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